Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ojai Unified Going Green

School district looks to save money, planet

By Sondra Murphy
With funding challenges facing Ojai Unified School District, most staff members are finding themselves with increased duties. Superintendent Tim Baird took it one step further and helped start the Ojai Valley Green Coalition.
Baird’s interest in forming the coalition was from the perspective that Ojai Valley businesses could make fundamental changes that have a collective and positive impact on the environment. With new environmental policies being developed, OUSD hopes to be saving more than the planet.
Over the summer, changes have been made districtwide to more effectively manage its resources while saving money. The school district has had recycling policies in place for many years, but has been implementing new, environmentally friendly practices that address growing concerns about our global climate.
Expanding its recycling program is one goal of the district. “We are putting together a plan to improve on our current recycling at the district office and out at different schools,” said Baird. “We recycle but it’s not as clean as it could be.
“As we speak, we have lighting upgrades going into the Matilija Gym, and the Nordhoff Gym and cafeteria,” Baird said. The district will be meeting with vendors about different options in day lighting, sky lighting and other more efficient systems. Topa Topa Elementary already has new day lighting systems in some classrooms. Besides being more green, “Studies show students do better with these kinds of lighting systems,” Baird said.
Transportation is another area of concern to the school district. “We currently have two natural gas buses and are looking at adding to our fleet. There’s a hybrid bus out there, but it is cost-prohibitive to our district,” Baird said. “We are working on a plan to increase bus ridership and also car pooling, biking and walking for students and staff.”
Starting this school year, the nutrition services department will no longer purchase Styrofoam trays for its meals. “They will use sugar cane-based trays that break down in landfills,” said Baird.
Purchasing greener supplies is just one way the district can improve. “We’re working on a grant with Food for Thought that will allow us to do a study on composting,” said Baird. With an increase in OUSD gardens being grown and harvested, composting would be one way of reducing waste that could prove fruitful.
Many of the green changes, like biodegradable lunch trays, cost more to purchase. With the district losing enrollment and funding each year, administration finds itself having to pay a little more to do the right thing, but it is hoped that some of the savings in other areas will help offset the higher cost of green products.
Ojai Unified began taking advantage of an energy-saving agreement with Southern California Edison this summer. Called SmartConnect, customers install special meters that allow the energy company to turn off district air conditioners for limited periods during brown-out conditions in exchange for reduced rates. “That saved the district $50,000 over eight weeks,” Baird said.
“There is a lot of promise here and I believe the school district is the largest energy user in the valley,” said Baird.
The district is exploring solar energy options, but since a significant, up-front investment is necessary, OUSD must first determine whether or not they can afford it.
With so many different ways to go green, the district has appointed Jim Berube its new “energy czar.” Among other duties assigned by the district, Berube has come out of retirement to focus on two tasks: to help save on energy costs and be more environmentally conscious.
Timers now manage the irrigation stations at Nordhoff High. The system has been redesigned to operate with fewer stations at lower volumes for longer periods of time. “It may appear that we’re using more water, but we’re really using less water more efficiently,” said Baird.
“By cutting down on needless waste, it’s better for the planet and better for the checkbook,” said Baird. Sometimes this is accomplished by installing high-tech devices, such as heating or irrigation timers. Simply making sure all computers are turned off at night is another way to cut waste. Additionally, “We’ll go low-tech on some things,” said Baird. Building more shade structures at district sites is an example of a low-tech strategy the district plans to implement.
In the short run, the changes are simple. “My goal is that I don’t want to walk into a classroom anywhere in the district where the lights, air or heat is on when no one is in the classroom,” said Baird.
After five to 10 years of implementation, Baird envisions a district that is thoroughly green. “It’s completely solar, providing all of our energy costs through solar panels,” he foresees. “In all rooms and offices we are on timers. We have centralized plans for composting at all schools. We have more kids taking the bus, and have more natural gas buses to transport them. We are just operating more efficiently and creating less waste.”

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